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A Few Good Books

Cigar Aficionado Rates Three Cigar Guides
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

Cigar smokers have seen a lot of changes over the past two years. New cigar brands and the introduction of additional lines or sizes by established manufacturers have flooded the market. And new connoisseurs have become a fast-developing audience, eager for any available information on what they are smoking.

Cigars are only the beginning. It seems that every week another marketing whiz comes along with a new line of accessories, from cases to humidors, cutters to lighters. Not that these products are unnecessary. For the most part, consumers of cigars are more sophisticated than in the past, so the slickest salesmen have been teaming up with designers to make sure their products are outstanding.

Despite all of the legitimate business being done in the name of cigar capitalism, there is still one grossly undersold product in the cigar-accessory market: knowledge. Cigar Aficionado readers call the magazine daily with countless questions about aging, storing, touring, smuggling and smoking. And inevitably they ask: "Isn't there a book about all this?"

There are several. Though no single volume mentioned below could be called authoritative, each has its merits. We have ranked them in order of quality, including readability, expert advice, accurate information and the aesthetics of the publication. One noticeable omission from this list is Zino Davidoff's Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar. Last published in the early 1980s, the book is not widely available in the United States, and even in Europe the French-language edition is all that can be found. Another book, The Gourmet Guide to Cigars by Paul Garmirian, was not reviewed because it is written by a cigar importer, and throughout the book the author frequently recommends his own cigars. And while Garmirian succeeds in entertaining the reader and providing some insightful knowledge, even his best-intended and well-spoken advice is tainted by the occasional sales pitch.

The Illustrated History of Cigars
by Bernard Le Roy
Harold Starke Ltd., London
(1989, English-language edition 1993)
199 pages, $79.95.

The Illustrated History of Cigars is better than any rival publication because it exceeds expectations, even for such a costly book. Oversized, like most coffee-table volumes, it contains excellent photography, lithography and brilliant captions. The translation is also top-notch, giving the main text a lively, engaging tone.

The narrative of The Illustrated History of Cigars flows easily. The book begins not with Columbus landing in Cuba but with more recent times, although it covers many colorful historical aspects of the cigar as a life-enhancing pleasure. Cigars, explain the authors, are as much a part of civilized society as gourmet cuisine, fine wines or apéritifs. And Le Roy and Szafran maintain an eloquent, dignified tone throughout the volume. From chapters on the history of Havana cigars to cigar making and smoking and reviews of individual cigars, this tone makes the guide hard to put down and a pleasure to turn to for advice.

The recommendations and history in the book are both first-rate, and the presentation adeptly avoids being overbearing. For example, the authors state that there is still some controversy about the geographic origin of the tobacco plant, citing both Mayan and ancient Chinese texts as proof. Wisely, they then sidestep a polemic by leaving the matter to historians and the reader's own discretion.

Le Roy and Szafran are not didactic, even when the subject is more tangible than digging for botanical or historical artifacts. In a section that seems pretentiously titled "The Art of Smoking," the authors dispense showy advice: "Where pleasures are concerned, rules are meaningless." While this may be stretching it a bit, this attitude is refreshing, especially to cigar smokers who have enough people telling them what to do with their stogies. The authors seem to feel the same way, distancing themselves from the hordes of self-proclaimed cigar scientists with one very bold statement:

You should smoke whatever, however and wherever you please as long as you enjoy it and are contented....For over half a century great minds, great public speakers and brilliant theoreticians have claimed to have established a set of rules for what they readily dubbed the art of cigar smoking. Some insisted that the rings should not be removed, others recommended removing them, some made a ritual of lighting the cigar, others insisted that cigars should never be re-lit, some systematized the way the end should be opened and still others even laid down the pattern a smoker's day should follow. This is nothing but hot air. If rules are a must, there should be only one: to please yourself.

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